Priest: Sex Allegations Were Hushed up

By Nicholas J.C. Pistor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
August 22, 2008

BELLEVILLE — Alleged sexual abuse by a priest within the Belleville Diocese was hushed and treated as dirty laundry, a former high-ranking diocesan official testified in court on Thursday.

"Like any family, you don't go hanging your dirty laundry all over the line," the Rev. Joseph Schwaegel, a former vice chancellor in the diocese, testified on Thursday.

A former altar boy is suing the Belleville Diocese, alleging that it covered up sexual abuse involving the Rev. Raymond Kownacki. The altar boy, now 47, says in the suit that Kownacki repeatedly molested him throughout the 1970s.

Defense attorneys for the diocese say the statute of limitations for the altar boy to sue has run out. They argue that many of the diocesan officials involved in the early complaints against Kownacki are dead, and that the diocese ultimately removed the priest from active ministry in 1995.

According to records shown in court, Schwaegel received complaints in 1982 from another family alleging abuse of their son at the hands of Kownacki.

"We have done as you asked, and not said anything to anybody," the family wrote Schwaegel.

Schwaegel acknowledged writing a response to the family, saying he had given Kownacki "the benefit of the doubt" and to let "bygones be bygones."

Nevertheless, Schwaegel testified, he never interviewed Kownacki to investigate the allegations. Instead, he said he followed the chain of command and passed the complaints on to then-Bishop John Wurm.

Schwaegel also said that he never had knowledge of past sexual abuse claims against the priest. Complaints were also made against Kownacki that alleged he raped a 16 year-old girl — who later became pregnant — and attempted to perform an abortion on her.

According to documents shown in court, other diocesan officials knew of growing evidence dating back to the 1960s accusing Kownacki of abusing young boys and girls. Schwaegel said the information was never shared with him.

Schwaegel testified on Thursday that the diocese moved Kownacki from parish to parish — even as sexual misconduct allegations followed Kownacki nearly everywhere he went.

In 1988, after Kownacki was put in a ministry that didn't involve young children or adults, the diocese allowed him to live at St. Henry's parish in Belleville. Next door were St. Henry's Grade School and Althoff Catholic High.

"You put him right in the heart of kids?" asked Stephen R. Wigginton, one of the altar boy's attorneys.

"Yes," Schwaegel testified.

Kownacki was removed from active ministry in 1995 but remained a priest. He currently lives alone in Dupo, receiving retirement benefits from the diocese.

Schwaegel also testified that he had removed himself from active ministry in 1994 for self-professed "sexual addiction."

"To adults," he said.

Testimony is set to resume on Friday. Among those who may be called to testify is former Bishop Wilton Gregory, now archbishop of Atlanta.

Contact: | 618-624-2577.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.